Monday, March 27, 2017

Water is the Only Truth: The Journey Ends 24.


This is the last chapter of this travelogue. When I started travelling there was no particular intention to write a travelogue; yes, I did have an interest to write about my experiences. Several of my friends have been following this journey quite diligently. But all good things have to come to a temporary halt. There is nothing sad or bad about it. The temporary halts are always like coming back to the base camp and reviewing all what have gone past. It is a sort of time for analysis and absorption. Besides, this temporary halt is about rejuvenating oneself. While the internal journeys are perpetual even when the mind and body are still, the physical journeys have to come to an end at some point. Body also needs stillness. Perhaps, after certain stage all the journeys become irrelevant. There are sages like Ramana Maharshi who have not ventured out of Thiruvannamalai at all. So was the case with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. There are other great people like Vivekananda and Aurobindo who were born in one place and gained their fame and following from elsewhere. There are innumerable spiritual seekers who go to different places and finally come back to a place where they had started everything. Though Sree Narayana Guru literally did not go back to Chempazhanthy where he was born, he did go back to Sivagiri, not so far from his birthplace and remained there for the rest of his life. Even Gandhiji himself had come to meet Guru. Sree Narayana Guru however used to travel to other places as a social reformer in the latter part of his life. In one of his journeys he met Ramana Maharshi and in their silent communion they had conveyed all what could be conveyed by two universes functioning on the same principles. There are several Yogis, Siddhas, Sannyasis and Sages in this country who have not even gone out of their villages. Many of them are absolutely unknown out of their own places. Still, spiritual seeking attracts people to this trip to know the soul and once you are in it there is no escape. When I say all these, I do not place myself on the same pedestal where they stand. What I say is only this much; for the time being, I am stopping my journeys with a purpose, therefore this travelogue is also coming to an end.

Maruthvamalai is around sixty kilometers towards South from Trivandrum and less than ten kilometers North to Kanyakumari. The name of the hill is famous in the Hindu mythology. When the Rama-Ravana battle was taking place both Rama and Lakshmana were affected by an arrow sent by Ravana, which made them unconscious. The sages advised Hanuman to get Mrutasanjivini, a medicinal plant which grew abundantly in a hill in the Southern part of the mainland. Hanuman immediately jumped across the sea and came to the mainland. He found the hill where the medicinal plants grew but did not know how to identify the plant. Having great strength and also the speed of wind, he plucked the hill itself and flew back to Lanka where the battle was taking place. There are two versions of the stories that I have heard. One of them says that this was from this hill Hanuman plucked a portion and flew back. In another version, they say that Hanuman was flying back to Lanka with the hill and a part of it was fallen on the ground which is what we call Maruthvamala today. I knew that Sree Narayana Guru had spent around three years at the top of the hill in a cave. Guru reached this hill because he had heard that there were so many other sages living there in the caves located at different heights. Guru chose the highest peak of the hill and the climbing of it today takes minimum two hours (if you climb in one stretch without stopping, which is humanely impossible). Climbing this hill fascinated me when I saw a signage at the foot of Sivagiri hills. This board gave the distances to different places where Guru’s life was intricately connected and one of which was ‘Marthvamalai’. From the Sivagiri book shop I got a small book on Marthvamalai. I decided to take a trip to Maruthvamalai before going to back to Delhi.

 I go with my nephew to Trivandrum and take a Nagarcoil bus. The conductor assures me that from Nagarcoil Bus stand we would get Kanyakumari buses in every two minutes and it would take us to the stop named Potteyadi, which is at the foot of Marthvamalai. We get into a Nagarcoil bus run by the Tamil Nadu Transport Corporation. It has different sub brands under it; Kattabbomman, Thiruvalluvar and so on. Tamils take great pride in naming even their state buses with valiant kings and sagacious poets. In Kerala, a completely literate state, you would not find a bus named after a famous writer. Three are auto rickshaws, buses and trucks that carry personal names, village names, family names and the names of innumerable gods and goddess; but never the name of a famous literary person. Tamil Nadu may not be a completely literate state but they take a lot of pride in the traditions that they have. They spend a lot of time and energy in preserving it. But in Kerala the traditional heritage is often demolished to set of contemporary establishment. However, there is a strong sense of revivalism happening in temples and the secular architecture. When it comes to revivalism, Kerala with its dominant religions, is in a revivalist trail, at times foolishly reviving traditions that were never a part of Kerala’s history, like covering oneself with gold ornaments, pushing the women in burqa and hijab etc. Anyway, when you travel in Tamil Nadu and a Kerala, especially when you are from one of these states this comparison is inevitable. But I should give credit to Kerala Transport for one particular thing; the buses are extremely well designed and clean. Most of the drivers and conductors are well behaved. That is the general feature of Kerala; each vehicle is washed clean and taken to a nearby religious establishment every day; yes, every day. Fresh flowers are put inside the buses. Even if state transport employees are not supposed to put gods and goddesses in the buses, in some of them we see a small idol which is worshipped. The staff members keep the buses very clean and in prime condition. But the unfortunate thing is that the Corporation incurs a 1000 crore deficit in every year. That is a miracle; a well oiled system making a huge losses. I am sure somewhere the money is siphoned out.

Nagarcoil has a huge bus stand with two parts. Before we reach the central station there, we pass through the Kaliyikkavilai, Marthandam, Tuckalay, Villikkuri and Sucheendram. I have been too all these places at different stages in my life for different reasons with different people. I remember Marthandam because of the Padmanabhapuram Palace which has wonderful murals in it. I have been to Sucheendran with its huge temple cars and the huge idol of Hanuman around whose neck the devotees put garlands made of Vada (the south Indian snack). Those people who go to Kanyakumari by their own vehicles, visiting Sucheendram is a must. This famous temple has a main shrine with Shiva Lingam and a second shrine with Mahavishnu, signaling the compromise that the Shaivaits and Vaishnavites had arrived at some stage of their vying for supremacy. I have fond memories about a small town called Villikkuri because that was the first place in Tamil Nadu where I had gone as a child to visit a young man’s house who was supposed to get married with one of my elder cousins. They were Tamil speaking and we were Malayalam speaking. But the children anywhere in the world do not need any language to share their childhood games. The children in that house in Villikkuri took us to the nearby villages, where there were a lot of agricultural fields. A canal full of water was cutting through the fields and walking along it I found that the canal was passing through a bridge kind of place that went across the road. I had seen water flowing down and bridges going above it. But here is one of those wonders of the world where the water flowing through a bridge and the road by under it! I was excited about that sight for a long time.

The bus has taken more time that we have expected and we stand there for sometime waiting for the Kanyakumari bus to come. Though we stand under the board where the buses heading to Kanyakumari are supposed to come nothing comes for a long time. Then we realize that the drivers take the bus just outside the bay and park elsewhere. We go there and make some enquiries and find out that the first in a row of three is about to leave for Kannyakumari. We get into the bus. The journey is pleasant though it is very hot out there. The wind coming from the west side is cool and strong. The winds that come into the bus from our left side, are a little warm but refreshing. On the eastern side we see huge hills coming up. I see the mightiness of the Sahya Mountain ranges and the receding hills along. In half an hour we are at the Potteyadi bus stop. On our left towards the eastern side there stands the might mountain, Maruthvamalai. But none seems to be over awed by their presence because we do not see many people around. Just across the road, there is a new temple coming up and an apparently North Indian tower of the temple gives me a feeling that the white structure there is erected by the ISKON People. There are no people around there to make enquiries. A man on a bike appears from nowhere and I ask him how to get to the foot of Maruthvamalai. He asks us to take a left into a dirt road and then once again take a left we are right there on the road to the hill. We do as the man directs us and now we are on that road. And we see a structure a few meters away from us standing almost insurmountable. It is too hot now as it is around one o clock at noon.

To reach the foot of the hill where we would start the climbing we have to go through a small village with very few houses. Each house has a small shop arranged in front of it. They all sell pickled gooseberries and bottled water. Those are the only things that the people who come to climb the hill need- water and more water. We are going to know more about water soon. My nephew is excited as he wants to try some ‘raw’ photography. What he calls raw photography is nothing but frames that are not generally attempted by others. They are not supposedly beautiful images. He revels in taking pictures of things that are often not clicked by others. At the foot of the hill there are a few steps and a couple of abandoned structures. I see a lone man sleeping off inside one of these abandoned buildings. On the left there is a small ashram. A man comes out of it, locks it and walks away. I am sure he is going away for lunch. We see a small cave on the way with the statue of Agasthya in it, completely smeared with holy ash. One person could squeeze himself in. I go inside and sit there for some time. After sometime we resume the climbing. The steps end at the first landing where there is a temple. We go inside and find that the temple is built under two huge boulders embracing each other at the top end. Once we come out my nephew Arvind would like to take the photographs of a set of earthen lamps that are blackened by oil and soot. They look like almost abandoned. Polite he is, he asks for permission to a lady who seems to be shouting instructions at the stray visitors there. She looks at him and suddenly brings seriousness in her face. She says that taking photographs is banned there. I know that she is putting up an act. She wants to assume importance at that moment. She could do it successfully dissuading the boy from clicking a picture. I tell him later that good photographs are always the ones that have been taken without asking for permission. He asks me about the ethics of intrusion. I say that the photographer thinking of ethics would lose historical moments that would have otherwise changed the history. He seems to have got a lesson.

The steps end there and the climbing now has to be via raw rocks. The mountain looks huge and steep from that angle. A man stands with a pot full of buttermilk. The very word buttermilk waters our mouth. We have one glassful each. The drink is made more palatable with ginger, curry leaves, chilly and salt and it tastes like nectar. He takes Rs.20 from us and says that he is about to leave for lunch and he is selling to us for a clearance price. Whatever it is, the buttermilk tastes best. That’s what exactly matters at that moment. The man seems to be lucky as a family of four climbing down and has reached there wants to drink it. He finishes the rest of it and takes an empty pot home. We start our climbing. The initial easiness of climbing gives way to strain. I use all my limbs to pull myself up. We sit on a boulder under a tree for our first halt. Nobody is seen; none is climbing up and none is coming down. Are we going to be alone in this place? Arvind is busy with his photography. After a few minutes we continue with our climbing. We see a group of people climbing down and I ask them how much we need to go now. They laugh and say that I should not ask that. “Please keep climbing,” that’s all the leader of the group tells us. We continue and sit in a place which looks cool; then we take a look down. The village down has already become a miniature. Now we could see vast tracts of lands as if seen from the flights. We continue our climbing and I start chanting ‘Om Namashivayah’ at each step when I try to pull myself up. For the first time Arvind tells me that he is feeling a sort of vertigo. I ask him to chant Om Namashivayah. He refuses to do and I understand why. He is young and it is the time for him to reject everything customary. He is more interested in his shoes, hairstyle, the mobile phones, cameras and so on. He speaks of a DSLR camera that he is going to buy and come here again next time.

Each time we sit to take rest and catch breath, I think of Sree Narayana Guru who had once climbed this and sat at the top for years together. At some point we see a young couple taking rest under a boulder. They seem to be really tired and troubled. I think that they have reached there on their way down. At another point we see a group of young boys bringing a very old man holding him from all the sides. The old man still has some energy left in him and he tells the boys to let him get down all by himself. There are a few women with the group. Though all of them look tired, some sort of enthusiasm still remains in them. At another point we see another man climbing down alone. We ask him how long we need to go. He smiles and teases us, “a little bit.” Then he adds, “It may take another one hour. Keep sitting at some place and then move. You chose the wrong time to climb. You should have come in the morning and then left the place in the evening.” He tells us and walks off. Each time we sit in one place we take a small sip of water from our bottle. Soon we realize that the water is about to be over. Then for another set of climbing, we take five drops each. And after sometime we find that water too is over. At that moment we realize that we are in the middle of the climbing. We have half way to go up with no water in hand. The initial jokes regarding the lack of water were turning into sore reminders of the heights that we have to climb and no provision of water. Suddenly we see a man coming down with four plastic pots strung around his shoulders. I ask him whether we would get some water there on the top and if so how much time we take to get the top of the hill. He looks at me and tells in a sing song tone: “I take only fifteen minutes to go up from here. There is enough water up there.” This fills us in with hope and we resume the climbing.

Sooner than later we realize that the man was either fooling us or he was giving us hope to climb further without leaving the efforts half way. Though the man has said that it takes only fifteen minutes to reach the top, we realize that it would take us another hour to reach there. By this time the thirst has started affecting me seriously. The meaning of the expression, parching throat and throat craving for a drop of water comes to take physical form and haunt me. I feel that I would faint. If I faint what would happen to this boy who is climbing with me. Though I do not worry much about the time after my fainting the moments that leading to the loss of memory would be terrible I know. I think of different scenarios that the lack of water in the body could create. I tell about my condition to Arvind. Even if he is young and is equally thirsty, he puts up a brave face and tells me that we would find some water somewhere. There is no end to this climbing and there is no sight of water anywhere. Now the flow of people coming down also has reduced to nil. After sometime while sitting under a tree I find three North Indian guys coming down with two bottle full of water. I ask them whether we get water at the top, they answer in negative. They have water but they are not ready to spare. One of the guys jokes that they could sell the water for Rs.500/- I smile back at them. Had it been on the planes and someone joked with me at that time, I do not know whether the person would have gone back alive to his home in the north. I laugh to forget the joke and I understand that he is also helpless as they are three and they have a few kilometers of hard terrains to trek down.

 I am so desperate and I tell Arvind that I would drink my own urine if there is no other chance of getting water. He says that nothing would go wrong and we should continue our climbing. I haul myself up. At some point suddenly an idea strikes me. I look at the long sleeves of my kurta. It is absolutely wet with my sweat. I just suck the right sleeve and some salty feeling goes into my tongue and from there to the throat and suddenly I feel a sense of relaxation there. I do it for a couple of times and feel somewhat fine. I postpone the idea of drinking urine for further up. Another half an hour passes by in climbing. Now there are indications to tell us that we are somewhere near the top of the hill. But in another turn we find that there is more level to climb. I see two young men coming down. I ask them whether they could find some water for me. They wonder from where they could find water. Then they point at one young man sitting on the other side of a rock partly hidden from us. One of these boys goes there and asks him whether he could give a little bit of water. Arvind gives him the bottle and we take small sips from it, one after another. That is the meaning of Mritasanjeevani- the redeemer from death. WATER! I speak to the young man who has given me water. He is from Sangli in Maharashtra. His Guru has sent him here. I hear it as this, “His Guru has sent him here saying, ‘go there, a thirsty man is coming to you. Give him some water.’” I thank him and resume the climbing. We are now at the top of the hill. We see the cave where Guru had taken penance. And at the peak there is a small plane where in order to commemorate the feat of Hanuman, there is a small idol of Hanuman inside a small shrine. I just collapse in front of that idol and open my mouth to take in some air.

Standing there I see Kanyakumari at a long distance. I could discern Vivekananda Rock and the Statue of Thiruvalluvar. On the other side of it there is a field of windmills. And beyond that we could see the domed structure of the Koodamkulam Thermal Power Station. There are a few boys there on the top of the hill taking photographs. There are a set of four other boys who stand separately (but making everyone know that they are together). They have come from Kochi. Every month they come here and spend one day at the top of the hill. I look at the world from the mountain top. What do I see? I see the seas, the threes seas joining there at Kanyakumari. There are salt fields far away glistening like mirrors. I see paddy fields like carefully drawn columns by an efficient topographer. I see the vimana Gopuram of Sucheendram temple. What do I see again? I see only WATER? The invisible water. I decide to record a small message for conserving water; Arvind records it in video. After spending some more time there and soaking ourselves with that immensity around us, we start our climbing down. By evening we are at the foot of the hill once again, alive. I buy a bottle of water and drink. I feel that I could drink a sea now. There is a never ending thirst. I thank god for making that village, with shops and shops selling water. We need to preserve and conserve water. That is the only thing that the human beings should do now; not only for themselves but also for the all other living organisms. Without water there is no life and no civilization; no politics and no art. Water is the only truth in the world.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

At Anjengo Fort, the First British Settlement in Travancore: The Journey 23

Two kilometers towards south of Kaikkara, the birth place of Kumaran Asan, around two hundred meters away from the Arabian Sea coast, there stands this fort which is called Anjengo Fort which has a lot of historical significance in the colonial history of India for it was the first sea coast fort that the English East India Company constructed in Kerala in order to consolidate their trade plans in Kerala. Though Anjengo is hardly four kilometers from my home, my memory of visiting this historical site is very faint but in that memory what remains strongly is the fear that the fort had induced in me at that time. I was hardly seven or eight years old when I visited this fort along with some senior cousin sisters. I stood frozen at the rampart of the fort which was in ruins. What scared me most was the sight of the sea, the threatening winds that could blow me off from the parapet, the sand dunes down there on the square court yard and above all two tunnels on the coastal ends of the fort. The mouths of those tunnels were closed with heavy wooden doors and across the wooden panels there were iron straps nailed in. One of the cousin sisters, with a clear intention to scare away the remaining ghost of life from me, pointing at those doors said that so many cows, dogs and children had gone into those tunnels and had never come back. That was the reason why they closed the doors forever. I fluttered like a dry leaf and the very thought of it rendered me sleepless for many years to come. It was one reason that I never visited Anjego again even if it was in cycling distance. I had a similar experience in childhood at the State Water Works, an establishment in Trivandrum which had steps over glass channels with water gushing through them. I thought I would slip and fall into them. Since then, even when I pass by that establishment in Trivandrum, I experience the same feeling of dizziness. Childhood memories are indelible, especially when they are scary.

 This time, as I have been writing this travelogue and gaining an natural momentum in and around the local history and the life and times of Sree Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan, I think of visiting Anjengo once again for I have heard that Guru had visited some of the temples in this village where main inhabitants are the fisher folk that speak a language which is a strange mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. They speak in a singsong tone and I think this language must have come along with early fishermen from the southern sea cost stretching up to Kanyakumari. In our childhood we used to think that these people were very rude. Occasionally I saw them at the sea shore where we played during the Asan Memorial celebrations. They were mostly involved in their daily jobs of mending the nets or oiling the boats. Engine fitted boats were not seen anywhere there. They used to go to the sea by evening and by day break they come back with a boat full of fish. After sitting and watching theatre works and dances at the Asan Memorial auditorium before heading back home, we used to go to the sea shore to see the boats coming back. Also in the shallow water fishing, they used to pull the net. It was a very interesting scene to watch in the early mornings when a group of men pulled the net out of the sea in unison, singing songs, quarreling or sharing jokes, while women with their bamboo baskets (now they are replaced by Aluminium vessels). We also used to join in the pulling of the nets and if we did it diligently, they used to give some small fish as remuneration. Though I had never got a fish as remuneration, most of my smart friends used to go to the sea shore with this particular purpose of getting some fish against the manual labor they did for the fisher men.

 Anjengo always gave me a surreal picture. If I speak geographically these four places namely, Vakkom, Kadkkaavoor, Anjengo or Anchuthengu and Kaikkara are the four corners of an imaginary square. As a young boy I used to go to Kadakkavoor and Kaikkara but always skipped Anjengo. The buses that plied to Sivagiri SN College came from Kadakkavoor via Anjengo. We waited for the buses at Asan Nagar in Kaikkara. The bend in the road to the south side almost hid the surreal land of Anjengo from my vision. When the face of the bus appeared at that turning and it headed fiercely towards us, I used to think that it was coming out of fairyland with full of strange creatures inside it as it was coming from Anjengo. The surreal feeling of Anjengo was developed in me for, obviously the reason that I have said earlier, several reasons; of which the first one was their religion. They were all Christians. In our village we never had Christian families though we still have a good number of Muslims here. Even if my name was Johny (I found other two Johnies at Vakkom later on) nobody believed that I was a Christian because there was no Christian presence in our village. When I went to college in Trivandrum, for the first few months I wore a small silver cross on a thread around my neck in order to avoid questions regarding my real religion. Sooner than later I threw that away because by that time I had thrown all the religions including Hinduism aside, doubting anything and everything related to religions. That was the part of growing.

 The second reason why I developed an aversion to Anjego was the foolish belief that all the people there were drunkards and quarrelsome. We used to get the stories of local wars happening in Anjengo between the fisher folk via village grapevine. I, with my feverish imagination made monsters out of the people in the village. The third reason for this particular fear for Anjengo was that I believed there were a lot of murders happening regularly there. I used to imagine that dead bodies were washed ashore every morning. This happened after reading a novel, Chemeen by Thakazhi Shivasankara Pillai. Made into a film by the same name by Ramu Karyatt, this film had bagged the President’s award then. In Chemmeen, there is a tragic death of the hero who is a fisherman. The novel ends with a sentence about the dead bodies of a huge fish and the hero being washed ashore at the Purakkad beach. I thought in Anjengo too there used to be incidents like that. When I was in the eighth standard in the village school, the first single screen theatre came up in our village. Almost at the same time, we came to know that another theatre came up in Anjengo. The name of the theatre was ‘Jesus’. What made me further curious was the announcement of the movies that they exhibited there. Most of the films were Tamil or related to Christianity. There was clear cut cultural difference there; either the people their chose it like to be that or the people on this side like us thought that was very strange. Today, I think that there was a mutual exclusion of and by the people of Anjengo and those from elsewhere.

So finally I make a decision to go to Anjengo and see whether I am still afraid of the place. I go there with Dr.Amritjude Vijayan. Though he is busy in his clinic, he makes himself free to come with me. Amritjude likes to visit places repeatedly. He says that he would like to visit certain places with me and the whole idea of visiting a place with a person whom you respect makes all the difference. I take a pillion ride with him and reach Anjengo in a few minutes from Kaikkara. The first impression that comes to my mind as we enter the Anjengo village is this; I have seen this elsewhere. Yes, I have seen it because it looks like a film set. A narrow street with more or less identical houses and shops; there is an auto stand where young rickshaw drivers hang out as there are not enough passengers to ferry around. An Enfield Bullet always catches the attraction of the young guys. They curiously look at us and admire the new motor bike. The feeling has a Déjà vu effect. The air smells of drying fish. There is an ice factor on the left side of the road. There is a huge Church on the left side as we move towards the fort. This is St. Peter’s Forane Church and there are full of people in it. On a Friday afternoon some special service is in progress. I would see sea side congregations later as we go the newly built bridge near Perumathura. I understand St.Peter. St.Peter was one of the first apostles who held the key of Christian believes as he was the one who went to the sea shores to tell the fisher folk to go with him so that he could help them to catch the human souls. So it was natural in a place where the Portuguese and Dutch had an initial presence and later consolidated by the English East India Company with the establishment of the fort.

Anjengo Fort is quite unimposing. What comes to the ken of vision is the towering lighthouse to direct the nightly ship and boat movements. The presence of the fort becomes stronger as you see the darkening surface of the huge walls. Ones who have seen forts in Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra and any other place in India, this Anjengo Fort would not look much impressive. This is a moderate fort built in 1696-98 when the English East India Company came to the southern coast and sought permission to build a fort in this place from the Queen of Attingal (this is the nearest town located nine kilometers from my village towards South East). The English East Indian Company wanted a sea fort in order to regulate their maritime activities in the Arabian sea, to store their arms, ammunition and trade goods. Though it was not a garrison, there was strong presence of the British soldiers and their women here. The Queen of Attingal, finding an opportunity to do trade with the new power in India, decided to give them a land which got its name from the five coconut trees that it had in it. Anchuthengu, which became Anjengo in the British parlance, literally means Five Coconut Trees. The inability of the British people to pronounce the Indian names and place names was the reason for the several changes in the names of places and streets. Anjengo, towards the end of the 17th century became an important British settlement in Kerala, which was not formed as Kerala yet, but Travancore, the Southern Kingdom after Malabar in the North and Kochi in the middle. Trading in pepper and coir products was the main business here for the British.

The Queen of Attingal was egalitarian in her approach that’s why she gave place to the British company. But the Company did not take it in the same spirit. They were clever and were planning to create schism between the Queen and the local chieftains in order to create instability and develop a monopoly in the trade. To please the Queen, the Brits used to send precious annual presents via the Chieftains who did the business transactions. But in 1721, the Brits decided to challenge the authority of the chieftains by adopting a new policy in presenting the Queen with gifts. In this year, a contingent of 140 British soldiers took the gifts for the Queen and marched towards the Attingal Palace (the remnants of which are still there. The temple pond is now dried up. A portion of the palace was used as marriage halls and dining room, and another portion was used as a private hospital. Now the palace is in disuse though the temples in its premises are still active. I used to spend a lot time in these areas as a school boy as my grandmother lived nearby the palace. Also the Sree Krishna Swamy temple with murals that are extensively studied by senior artist A.Ramachandran is also in the same area. I have written a bit more about the Attingal Palace in the ‘To My Children Series’ and in some other articles). They were stopped and attacked by the Chieftains. The people who were not in favor of the British for lowering the price of their pepper produce, also joined the fight and killed all 140 soldiers in a fierce fight. The people marched to the Anjengo fort and seized from the British. But within six months, the British refurbished their armament and soldiers from Talasseri fort and Britain, and pushed the locals out of the fort and brought the Queen of Attingal to sign a new treaty with them so that the Company’s power could be more established. The revolt of the Attingal people in 1721 which is known as the Attingal Outbreak in history is considered to be the first revolt against the British in South India. The East India Company used this premises for storing arms and ammunitions during the first Anglo-Mysore ware in 1767.

 The Anjengo fort has four corners and is square in shape. The architecture of it helps us to think that the internal storing and living structures were not done using permanent materials. They must have been make shift arrangement as in tents and shamianas. The fort is now under the protection of National Heritage Monuments. There is a steel plaque just at the entrance of the fort. Some descriptions about the fort are given in three different languages. One person approaches and asks us to read the plaque before we enter. The moment we cross the threshold of the fort, he says that he is not a guide however, he expects ‘something’ as we come out. We go inside and the National Heritage Monument authorities have developed a clean and neatly cut lawn inside the fort. I remember the beach sand inside the fort and the lawn looks completely unnatural here. There are two sets of steps to go to the ramparts and we climb from the left side. Once we are up there, all those old fears come back in me. That is intensified when Amritjude tells me that we may be blown off by the sea wind. There is a three feet parapet that runs along the stretch of the fort and due to some strange logic the Brits had not made any protective railings. As we go further and reach the western side that face the sea and the houses that have come up between the fort and the beach (daring all the possible threats that the sea could cause to the inhabitants there. Their faith in the sea seems to be unshaken) the rampart becomes one and half feet wide. I push my back close to the high wall and move like a snail to cross that particular area. I dare not to look down on the lawn for the fear of falling off. On the western part on the right corner there is a tall but leaning slightly to the right there stands a pillar which looks like a fossilized structure thanks to weather. Amritjude tells me that this was the pole on which the local offenders were killed and hung, or stripped and whipped. As a memorial to colonial atrocities the pole stands there. A crow perches on it and I click a photograph. We climb down and we see a few Indian tourists walking in. The guide aspirant is still around but I do not give him any money. Just in front of the fort a group of boys and girls have just arrived by scooties. They are in a very jovial mood and as they speak in Hindi I understand that they are from North India. Also I assume that they have come to Varkala which is officially a tourist spot and have come here by hired bikes. If the government really works on it, Anjengo will be one of the hottest tourist spots in Kerala.

Even if the government is not working the tourist potential of this area has been identified by the local entrepreneurs, it seems. As we go inside the protected premises of the light house, two young men approach us with a brochure; it is a tourism package. They will take around us for half an hour to two to three hours depending on our ability to pay, in a house boat. I look at the brochure and feel a lot of happiness because all these places are around my home and I have visited almost all the places. The boys speak to us in English but I tell them that Malayalam will do as we are local people. But they have all the enthusiasm of the new entrepreneurs; they push on further and tell us that we should once experience the package which I say we would definitely. Then for the sake of asking I ask whether they have staying facilities; “yes sir, we have a five star hotel tie up next to the Perumathura Bridge,” one of them answers promptly. I am surprised; in a small village like ours has now two five star hotels (one Vakkom Palazzo at Panayil Kadavu and this one these guys have mentioned). I understand the fact that this area has started understanding the tourism potential. But soon came the thought of an environmentalist in my mind; the places will lose their innocence once the tourism is in place. I tell Amritjude that when tourism comes, even the fisher women would talk to us in English and sell us small fish in big prices. That is the one outcome of local tourism; while those people who are attached to tourism industry including the small time businessmen benefit out of it, the local who are not inside the tourism activities would suffer considerably for the unification of markets according to the tourism demands. The prices of the local produces would go high almost choking the locals out of breath. But something has to suffer if something else has to come up. Can’t we find a fine balance between these two?

Here is the 130 feet tower of a light house. You have to take Rs.20/- for going inside, literally for climbing up. Rs.10/- is the entry fee and the other ten is for your mobile phone camera. We purchase the ticket and go to the light house. There is an instruction to keep the footwear outside. We do that. Sooner than later we come to know why the particular instruction; the lighthouse is like a vertical tunnel with winding stairs all the way going up. If you look up you will feel dizziness, and after climbing half way if you look down, still you will feel dizziness. Both us keep ourselves close to the wall and climb. We take around ten minutes to reach the top. In between there are windows through which you could see and the backwater and the coconut groves, mobile phone towers, boats and so on alternatively. Finally we reach the top landing and to get into the cabin where the huge revolving flood light is kept you have to take a vertical iron stairs. You go up like a straight line and get into the cabin. Already a few guys are there taking selfies in that crammed space. There is a small door, around three feet tall, and it is through which you could come out to the narrow balcony. I come out followed by Amritjude. Both of us do not dare to look down but we finally look down and it is 130 feet down. There is a tall railing and there is no possibility of falling down unless you want it to happen; still we feel this strange feeling of vertigo and an itch to jump down. Amritjude show me the places that he could identify from this height. Our village is not seen at all. It has gone hiding within the coconut groves and foliages. We see the sea on our left glistening like a sheet of glass. We climb down the steps and finally we emerge from the tunnel. We feel as if we got a new lease of life. I look back at the tunnel once again and walk out.

 It is time to wind up our journey for the day. But Amritjude wants to extend the feeling of the travel a little more as we drives me along the coastal road to Perumathura, a few kilometers away from Anjengo and it is here the backwaters join the Arabian sea. There is a wide strip of water that leads to the sea. A sold pathway has been made till the end of this strip so that people could walk into the place where the backwaters join the sea. I had gone there earlier with Amritjude himself. So this time we avoid going there. We stand there and look at the boats that venture out into the sea one after another for night fishing. All the boats are named after Christian saints. They are all engine fitted boats. Each boat has two to three people in them. The fiber glass boats, almost empty moves like speed boats than fishing boats. At the edge of the water two people sit and do angling. One has an aluminium fishing line fitted with all the modern contraptions. He catches fish and puts in a small basket. Though he is not successful in getting big fish, he has got a few small ones. Another person does not have any modern equipment. He throws the lines into the water and waits for the fish to bite it; once the weight is felt he starts pulling thread. As the sun goes down the landscape changes its color. The green becomes darker and the water becomes cool. The breeze is soothing. A state transport bus goes by the bridge above. In the almost empty bus one lonely traveler throws a smile into the water down there. It falls there floats there for a while and sinks. More people come to the area to spend some time away from the crowds. Such people have created a new crowd here now. Something has bitten the line; the man with no fishing line pulls his thread. He has got a big one. The fish gasps for air while the rest of the world takes the same air without any difficulty. We walk back to the bike and behind us a crane belts out a cry and swoops down for the fish. Amritjude’s white Enfield Bullet takes off from there to a darkening world.

Friday, March 24, 2017

At the Feet of Kumaran Asan (1873-1924): The Journey 22

In a recent dialogue with some rouge Malayali poets (yes, I like to use the word ‘rogue’ for them) in the social media they severely attacked me using the worst language possible and then some of them declared that I am old school in poetry  and they belong to the new age and their ideals are so and so. One of them put the names down in the comment box and I found most of the names belong to a social media coterie; the members of it stick together, publish free verses both in the new as well as in the traditional media often without much editorial interventions. There is a club mentality and also they are driven by a sort of mob psychology; anybody who critiques their kind of poetry would be severely attacked in a planned move. I do not like much of social media poetry though I do write poems in the social media. Each poet in the social media believes that he/she is sacrificing his/her life for the welfare of the literary genre, new age poetry. In the discussion I politely told them that I belong to the old school, perhaps this old school was ‘the modern’ poetry for almost eight decades of the last century. Calling this modern poetry, which is excellent in form, theme, allusions, metaphors, meter, aesthetical vibrancy and all encompassing including environmental concerns much more than that new age poetry claims to address, deal with and celebrate, ‘old’ is a sort of anachronism but those people who try for eternity through free verse think that calling this something old would naturally make them new. It is as good as erasing the edges of a long line in order to make it small rather than drawing a longer line above it. And when I told them that I belong to the old school of poetry, I had clearly spelt the name of the poet whose poems have been an inspiration ever since I understood poetry as a literary form; and it remains to be so even today. The name of that poet is Kumaran Asan.

Whenever I think about the great personalities whose contributions send a shiver through my spine not because of the fear that they induce in me but because of the sheer excellence and genius that they have shown in their works, I think of their age and just make a mental comparison of my own age. Kumaran Asan born in 1873 started writing serious poetry when he was around twenty years old and it was the turn of the new century; the transition from 19th century to 20th century though was not spectacular for a rural poet he understood the under currents of such transition with all its socio-political and economic implications that naturally led him to ideate the issues of the ‘modern world’ and an evolving world which had then started formulating the ideas against colonialism, class and caste hierarchies all over the world. Mystics, social reformers, spiritualists and atheists were coming from the lower strata of the society and Kumaran Asan had developed the right kind of political as well as aesthetical antennas so that he could capture the frequencies not only using his brain power but also with his spiritual power which was traced and whetted by none other than Sree Narayana Guru. With such a personality I stand no comparison. But I do dare to compare his age with mine. Kumaran Asan died in a boat accident in 1924 in Pallana near Alappuzha. He was just fifty one years old. This is where the comparison comes. By the time he was prematurely taken away from this world by fate, Kumaran Asan had accomplished quite a few social roles such as an accomplished poet who was awarded by the Prince of Wales, a Sanskrit scholar, an indisputable disciple of Sree Narayana Guru, therefore a social reformer, a member of the legislative assembly and the first Secretary of the SNDP, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham, an organization established by Guru himself at Aruvippuram in 1904. What have I done by this age? The more I think about it, the more I feel that I have done nothing. However, that realization is something that goads me towards action because like Guru and Kumaran Asan, I believe that a right mixture of Jnana yoga and Karma yoga is needed, aided by true Bhakti yoga would automatically take me to the Ananda yoga. Perhaps, one does not do things mechanically (a bit from each category) or so consciously in order to achieve bliss. But the awareness of this mixture would work as sweetness in milk and each gulp of it makes one to taste the sweetness without really thinking about which part of it is milk and which part constitutes sweetness.

Moreover being the mere inspiration, Kumaran Asan is my neighbor. I have walked the same road where his footsteps had fallen. I have run through the same sea shore where he used to run. I have sat under the same chempaka tree where he had sat reading books. I have stood at the veranda of the same school where he had taught for some time. I had stood before the same idol in a Subrahmanyan temple (Velayudhan Nada at Vakkom) where Asan was the assistant priest for some time. Above all, I have read all his poems. Kumaran Asan was born in Kaikkara, the next village which is in a ferry distance, which I used to take for going to my pre-university college. In five minutes’ walk from home we reach the ferry and it takes another five minutes to cross the backwaters which flows into the sea a few kilometers ahead where you would find the historical Anjengo Fort, the first sea port and fort of the British East India Company. A few minutes’ walk from there we reach the shore of the Arabian Sea, along which there is a road that takes us to Varkala where Sivagiri, the Samadhi of Sree Narayana Guru is located besides the college where I had done my pre-university studies. Many years before the college days when I was seven or eight years old even before Guru came into my life Asan became an integral part of my life. The beginning was painful for I had to learn his poems by heart in order to recite there during Asan’s birth day celebrations.

Asan’s birthday falls on the Chithra Pournami day of April (12th April 1873). That day is a great festival for all the neighboring villages including Anjego, Vakkom, Nedunganda, Cherunniyoor, Vettoor, Varkala and so on. Though we were separated from the village Kaikkara where Kumaran Asan was born, by a ferry, the birthday celebrations were our right too not just because Asan had been a priest in one of the temples here in Vakkom but also because most of the people who had an inclination for literature from our village were a part of the Asan celebration committee. For almost a week, the birth day celebrations of a poet used to be the mainstay of all the people in and around Kaikkara. Major literary figures came to this sea shore from all over Kerala. In 1980s an Asan World Prize was constituted by the Asan Memorial Committee and the first Asan Prize was given to Sedar Sengor from Senegal. This was one of the biggest literary congregations that I have ever visited in my life. For us, the children from these villages had to participate in various competitions including elocution, poetry recital, story/poetry writing and painting. Though I used to participate in all these items my mainstay was poetry writing and poetry recital. Depending on the age group they used to give us themes to write stories and poems and I remember getting prizes every year and most of the awards came in the form of Asan’s books which gave me an impetus to read them all in a tender age itself. For poetry recitation, they gave us particular portions from Asan’s poems and we had to learn them by heart. With such memorizing practice many of Asan poems are still etched in my mind. I remember an embarrassing incident; I had learnt a particular portion by heart and set to tune by a local musician. On the stage I simply forgot the tune and stood like a stupid at the mike till the audience gave me friendly cat calls and applause (for the regular fixtures of the audience we, the participants were also familiar figures) until my mother recited the poem in tune from the audience as the last resort to save my grace.

Kumaran Asan is a great poet. He is also known as Mahakavi, that means the great poet. But Asan perhaps is the only one modern poet who is called a Mahakavi without writing longer verses. The degree of Mahakavi is given only to those poets who write poems of epic length. Asan did not write any such poems. His were smaller poems that ran a few pages with less than five hundred verses or so. They were Khanda Kavyas; Poetic Pieces. Asan did not write many abstract poems; set to the classical standards they were narrative poems that dealt with social as well as spiritual themes. The only abstract poem and perhaps the most popular poem of Asan is Veenapoovu (The Fallen Flower) in which he speaks of the impermanency of life looking at a fallen flower. Hailing from the Ezhava community and also becoming a part of Guru’s life, Asan was politically inclined to the society and stood for the reformative acts and for socio-economic uplifting of the downtrodden people. Hence he wrote poems like Duravastha (Bad Situation) where an upper caste woman is married to a lower caste man. Basing his poetic thematic on the ‘Light of Asia’ written by Edwin Arnold on the life and philosophy of the Buddha, Asan wrote ‘Buddhacharitam’. He derived themes from Buddhist lore and before Ambedkar thought of Buddhism as an alternative, one could say that Kumaran Asan knew that to counter the Brahminical Hinduism, Buddhism was the only religion which had all the goodness of Hinduism and hailed the decimation of desire and practice of love and tolerance as the pivotal driving force of life. Asan was a revolutionary as he poetically re-read the Ramayana and his ‘Chinthavishtayaya Sita’ (Thoughtful Sita) is hailed to be a staunch critique of Ramayana’s ideal from a feminist point of view. A small chapter like this is not enough to talk about all his works.

In road to Kaikkara from the ferry hits at a junction which is known for Kumaran Asan. The place is called Asan Nagar. There used to be an old auditorium with a lot of ventilation for the sea breeze to come in. Apart from a beautiful oil portrait of Kumaran Asan wearing the Shawl and Bangle awarded to him by the Prince of Wales, there were two paintings depicting two pivotal scenes from his poems Karuna and Chandala Bhikshuki. In the first painting on the left we see a beautiful but lower caste girl giving water to a Buddhist monk and in the other painting there is the depiction of the courtesan, Vasavadatta sitting in all her glory, attended by a maiden. These two paintings actually laid foundations for my visual thinking. Each time I sat in the auditorium, my attention was on these paintings. I do not know where those paintings have gone. Now the auditorium is broken down. And in its place a well designed open air auditorium and a commemorative tower are built. On the road side in the same campus there is a reading room and a multi-purpose hall. The school where once Kumaran Asan had taught for a while is now very colorful; the old building has gone. In this new colorful building one could see a huge board saying, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Education for All Movement), apparently a central government project. Next to it I see another building which is devoted as an office of the Asan Memorial. The small temple where the Champaka tree is there is now hidden away by these buildings. However, from the road side itself I could see the tree laden with flowers. It was under this tree Kumaran Asan used to spend his boyhood days. The small house on the sea shore where Asan was born is no longer there. Back in the memorial stupa and auditorium, a flight steps lead to the beach. The blueness of the sky is so captivating. I look at myself. I am no longer the same boy who stood there wondering at those paintings. I have become something else but what I have not lost is the love for Kumaran Asan; I feel reassured.

Kumaran Asan had lived in Bangalore and Kolkata as a part of his Sanskrit education. But he did not live in those places for long. He came back and started living in Thonnakkal, seven kilometers to South from Attingal and around thirty kilometers to north from Trivandrum city. Thonnakkal is now turned into the Asan National Research Centre and Memorial with beautiful buildings and a few sculptures by Kanai Kunhiraman. The Government of Kerala took over the old houses and its premises from the family and made into a memorial of the poet in 1958. In successive years many additions were done. Today, Thonnakkal stands for Asan Memorial. It has taken over the glory of Kaikkara, which is definitely trying its level best to bring the old glory back with the new memorial set up which I have seen now. The Thonnakkal Asan Memorial Gate is conspicuous by its art works and a closer look reveal that it is done by none other than Kanai Kunhiraman, the most of famous sculptor in Kerala. The works at the gate remind one of the Mukkola Perumal done in front of the Kochi Corporation Building. Just inside, on the left side there is an abstract composite sculpture that represents the social ills and the indomitable energy of human beings to come out of all those clutches as rendered by Kumaran Asan. On the right there is a huge lawn with undulating landscapes, medicinal and flower plants. Though it is not a full fledged garden there is sense of garden in the landscaping. Right in the middle of it there is a huge sculpture, a reclining nude woman by Kanai, representing not only Vasavadatta of Karuna but also the beauty of all the revolutionary heroines of Asan.

The first building that we see as the museum of Asan is nothing but a sheer waste of space. Though it is meant as a museum the pillared foyer is of no use. There are double corridors around the building and the whole of the building has a twenty by twelve hall which houses some photographs and manuscripts of Kumaran Asan. There are attempts to make reliefs on the walls that line the corridor but it looks like as if those relief works were forced on to your nose; they are too close to see any image in them. Most of the Kerala museums and public buildings are sheer waste of money, energy, resources and aesthetics. They lack in aesthetics and planning. Kerala seems to be interested in external beauty. The buildings are beautiful to look at from outside. The moment you get inside, you feel claustrophobic and feel that the spaces are wasted. Thank god, the old house and small out house where Asan used to sit and write his poems are preserved as they are (luckily no canopy contributed here by any liquor baron). The very presence of these small homes would rush all those old memories related to the poet. Perhaps that is the only soothing experience that you have in Thonnakkal. As the whole campus is on the western side, by afternoon you see everything in a silhouette. If you are interested to do some photography here, come before noon with the eastern light falling on the facades sharply. On the far right hand corner there is another huge building which is a mural gallery.

This mural gallery, though the murals are good enough, is again a waste of time and space. With that amount of money and design one could have created an architectural wonder. The murals depict the thematic core of Asan’s Khanda Kavyas. ‘Pookalam’ and ‘Karuna’ are done by Basant Peringode, ‘Chandalabhikshuki’ is by Saju Thurthil, ‘Karshakante Karachil’ by P.K.Sadanandan, ‘Duravastha’ by Krishnan Mallissery, ‘Veenapuvu’ by Suresh K.Nair, ‘Leela’ by Suresh Muthukulam, ‘Nalini’ by Krishnakumar, ‘Chinthavishtayaya Sita’ by Gopi Chevayoor- All accomplished mural artists from Kerala and elsewhere. The more I look at these works, the more I think about those old paintings that I had seen in Kaikkara in my boyhood days. They were not given any museum space. Here we have a set of good mural works but they are not given any due exhibition. As they are painted on the walls directly, with no conservation efforts, slowly they would fade as there is no temperature or light control in them. Besides, in the whole design of the building, there is no sense of exhibition. These artists should have been given a hall with precise space for each of them, instead of forcing them to do their works as if in a single strip. The other lack is that there is no wall writing or literature regarding these works of art or artists for a visitor. I take a lot of pain to look for the signature of the artists. I am happy that I know most of them personally. A museum should have literature regarding the major attractions. This building also doubles up as a book stall and sales counter. Though there is a lot of Kumaran Asan related literature on display they do not look like really attractive. There are two shelves of inside where the old publications of Kumaran Asan’s works brought out by now defunct publishers. But no light is given on them and apart from some uniformed sweepers nobody is seen around to ask questions. Just outside this building there is another sculpture by Kanai that looks like a take on Duravastha where the upper caste woman comes out due to social changes (read unrest). In the museum there are some manuscripts in the original handwriting of Asan but you could say that the lighting is either not working or is non-existent.

In Kerala, I believe that the authorities should consult the concerned experts before they go in for making any kind of museums or public buildings. Though there are allocation of funds for beautification and art making in the state, most of it is channelized through various government organizations like the Public Works Department that with no idea about the changes that have happened in the world keeps doing things which eventually make a very bad impression about the state of Kerala which is hundred per cent literate and has a state funded biennale to boast off. Kerala is now gunning for a 360 tourism and it has recently invited thirty travel bloggers from thirty different countries and give them a free tour in Kerala in order to spread the word. In another program, the Tourism Department went ahead in doing road shows in European countries to promote Biennale that the state government believes that has given a shot in the arm as far as tourism is concerned. But I would say the government giving no attention to the existing museums and making them world class would eventually would bring bad name to the state than getting more tourists. Today, the state should understand that the tourists come for two things, beaches and Ayurveda. A mammoth portion of Kerala’s tourism possibility remains unexplored due to lack of vision. Museum such as Thonnakkal Asan Memorial is a classical example. If tourists come here, they would laugh off their chairs. It is so primary and juvenile and we need better planning and better promotion. What saves grace as far as the Thonnakkal is concerned is the old home of Kumaran Asan. Even the works of Kanai looks like abandoned with the water bodies around it dried up and the edges frayed and broken. If Kumaran Asan sees it now he would say but a tinge of irony in his voice, “Sree Bhoovil asthira-asamshayam, Innu ninte abhoothiyengu punerengu, kidappithorthaal’ (Prosperity is temporary on the face of the earth/Think of it, your present state, where were you and where are you today)- from Veenapoovu.